It seems like Calvinists are everywhere these days. Thousands gather for conferences-Together for the Gospel, The Gospel Coalition, Advance. Mark Driscoll is on Nightline and dominates among church leaders on YouTube. Church planting networks (pseudo-denominations) like Acts 29 are attracting a lot of young leaders wearing plaid shirts with pearl-snap buttons. And both secular and evangelical news outlets are taking notice. Christianity Today did a cover story on the young Calvinist phenom. But is it all just an illusion?Barna released new research that says there are no more Calvinist pastors today than there were 10 years ago. David Kinnaman, Barna Group president, summarized the findings:
“there is no discernable evidence from this research that there is a Reformed shift among U.S. congregation leaders over the last decade. Whatever momentum surrounds Reformed churches and the related leaders, events and associations has not gone much outside traditional boundaries or affected the allegiances of most today’s church leaders. It is important to note that the influence of Reformed churches might also be measured through other metrics that are currently unavailable, such as the theological certainty of self-described adherents, their level of acceptance toward those who are not Calvinist, and the new methods Reformed leaders are using to market their views to their peers and to the public.”
The last sentence is what grabbed me. There is little doubt that Reformed leaders are using new methods to spread their theological convictions and they’re doing a very good job. Crossway and Moody Press, who publishes many of the Reformed leaders’ books, seem to be releasing more Reformed content every week…based on the advanced copies that come across my desk. And the “coalitions” and conferences devoted to Reformed thinking seems to be expanding. But more books, networks, conferences, and blogs does not necessarily indicate a grassroots movement. Barna seems to indicate that the numbers are flat. So, is this really a matter of perception being greater than reality? Is the surge of Calvinism many have interpreted as a grassroots phenomenon really a manufactured and artificial (a.k.a. Astroturf) perception? Time will tell, but we’ve seen this happen before. In the late 90s and early 2000s you couldn’t go anywhere without being bombarded by the “Emerging Church” movement. Every publisher, it seemed, had an emerging church imprint and stable of authors. Ministry conferences were eager to include an emerging church track. And although most people had no idea what “emerging church” was, they simply lumped anyone under 35 with a penchant for candles and battered denim into the category. We were told that this was a “movement” sweeping the church. Really? While a few emerging church books sold well, particularly Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian and Dan Kimball’s Emerging Church, few others really broke out in any significant
numbers. And by the mid-2000s most publishers were dropping their emerging imprints and tracks from conferences. Was it really a grassroots movement, or a marketing strategy made to look like a grassroots movement-astroturf? In the end some streams of the emergent experiment did flow into liberal territory resulting in cries of heresy and fears that this “movement” would overtake the church if not aggressively combated with orthodoxy. Was this the seed of the New Reformed / New Calvinist movement? Is it possible that one Astroturf phenomenon gave birth to another? Again, time will tell. I do believe the New Reformed folks are far better organized and have a clearer agenda and theology than the emerging church ever did. That makes sustainability far easier, and therefore impact more likely. Perhaps in another 5 or 10 years the research will show a more discernable rise in the number of leaders identifying as “Reformed.” But Barna’s research is a sober reminder-perception is not always congruent with reality and books, conferences, and blogs do not a grassroots movement make.